The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Art of Decluttering Your Dissertation

PhD HacksIn an all-too-relatable PhD Comic series, Celia tackles her anxiety by making a list of everything she needs to accomplish and categorizing them by their level of importance. To her horror, she realizes that they are all important. In a state of panic, she does the dishes, organizes the desktop icons on her computer, and finally crawls underneath her desk in the hope that ignoring reality will move the items off her to-do list.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to PhD life, with dozens of self-help books on navigating the world of “crazy busy.” This feeling can be overwhelming when working on a dissertation—unlike courses with fixed deliverables such as term papers and exams, there is no concrete end goal. You commonly hear the mantra, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” yet it is hard to reconcile that with pressures to add more publications and conference presentations to your CV as you head into the job market. There is always something more you can be doing. Piled Higher and Deeper, indeed.

Enter Marie Kondo, a Japanese cleaning consultant. In her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (and its sequel, Spark Joy), she describes her revolutionary KonMari Method™ to help readers ruthlessly sort through and organize their possessions. This has helped to popularize the minimalism movement and earned her a slot in the Time Magazine 100 most influential people. As a KonMari convert, I find her tips highly relevant to prioritizing academic work and carving out the time to complete meaningful projects that will set you up for a successful career.

Basics of the KonMari Method

The KonMari Method™ requires taking all objects from a single category (eg, clothing, sports equipment, or kitchenware) and put them in a large pile in the middle of a room. One by one, you hold each item and decide whether it “sparks joy.” If so, keep it; if not, thank it for its service and let it go. (And of course, be responsible with your disposal—there are many landfill alternatives, such as gifting items to a friend, donating to charities, or selling on Craigslist.) After you have finished, your living space will only contain items that make you happy or you cannot live without. This is not about organizing items in tidy storage bins; rather, following the KonMari Method™ can fundamentally change your perspective on material goods and what is most important in your life.

How to KonMari Your Dissertation

Even if you are not ready to let go of your worldly possessions and undertake the 100 Things Challenge, the KonMari Method™ can be applied to your PhD life to reduce your levels of overwhelm and boost your productivity.

Step 1: Make an inventory of everything you do on a monthly basis. Your activities might include dissertation research, teaching assignments, research assistantships, tutoring, serving on the graduate student union, coursework, upcoming conferences, or dissertation writing groups. Include your non-PhD activities, such as your weekly Friday happy hour meet-up, upcoming plans to move to a new apartment, being a groomsman in your best friend’s wedding, Ultimate Frisbee team practice, making dinner each night, or family care taking obligations. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest you add social media and people to your inventory. Separate your lists into categories, such as “work,” “academic,” and “personal.”

Step 2: Within each category, review each item to determine whether it is “necessary” or “sparks joy.” Necessary items could include coursework (required for candidacy), fulfilling the duties of your TA or RA position (required for your paycheck), attending your department’s seminar series (you want to be visible, and they are great ways to learn about cutting-edge research and what (not) to do in a presentation), and completing a research project with a faculty member (you want to develop a reputation as someone who follows through on your commitments). The joyful items are deeply personal, and your list will be unique to your personality. For me, completing a 75-mile bike ride sparks joy, whereas most people would find that utterly torturous.

Step 3: Eliminate items that are neither necessary nor joyful from your life. If a non-necessary research project fills you with dread, create an exit strategy to stop working on it. If you are overwhelmed by the number of conferences you plan to attend, stop submitting so many abstracts. If cooking is not deeply satisfying, negotiate rotating meal preparations with your friends and roommates. (Or you could be like me, and decide it is perfectly acceptable to rotate a panini, salad, or grilled chicken for dinner each night—that hack saves me at least five hours a week that would have been spent on meal planning, preparation, and shopping.)

Step 4: For the items that are necessary but not joyful, identify strategies to reduce their burden. Grading rubrics are fantastic for improving your efficiency and providing students with more feedback and grading transparency. If you are still taking coursework, maintaining a reasonable GPA is necessary for completing candidacy but the difference between an “A” and “A-” is not relevant in a PhD program because your skills and publications are what make you stand out to employers. One of my friends recently did a cross-country road trip and enlisted a AAA representative to locate hotels along her route to save her planning time (brilliant!). Make your own coffee and pack a lunch—the amount of money you save from your daily Starbucks habit and eating out may enable you to quit your tutoring job. If you are unsure how to minimize the burden, bring your list to your faculty mentors to discuss what to prioritize and identify efficiency strategies (see my PhD Hack on creating effective meetings).

Step 5: If you are really struggling, enlist a close friend to review your list and provide advice on what is really necessary. There is an entire cottage industry of wardrobe consultants to help people sift through their cluttered closets and coach them through decisions about what to keep, toss, and reorganize. Similarly, you can see a counselor or hire a life coach to assist you with these decisions. If you feel overwhelmed with where to start, having a neutral party help you sort through your priorities can be an invaluable career investment.

Step 6: Stop comparing yourself to your “busy” peers. It has become a badge of honor to look overwhelmed, talk incessantly about your large number of commitments, and multi-task. In reality, self-professed “busy” people are frequently less productive because their inability to devote sufficient energy to any one project can reduce the quality and quantity of their output. Psychological research provides evidence that multi-tasking reduces productivity. A wise colleague told me about how she banned herself from uttering the word “busy.” I am guilty of not consistently following that advice, but I found it to be a useful strategy to shift my mindset.

Wrapping Up This Month’s Hack: How Minimizing Can Help You Maximize

To be clear, I am not suggesting that you adopt a four hour work week, stop attending conferences, consistently say no to your classmates’ requests for peer feedback, shirk your TA/RA responsibilities, ignore professors’ offers to participate in research projects, cut corners in your research, or submit drafts to your committee without a careful proofread. Rather, this PhD Hack is about identifying what is most important to you, so you can prioritize the things that make you most passionate. In future posts we’ll tackle strategies for improving task efficiency.

Prior to my sabbatical at UCLA, I applied the KonMari Method to my own life. I ditched social media, toxic people, and unnecessary material possessions and drove cross-country with a Honda Fit filled with two people, two suitcases, road trip supplies, and two road bikes (all inside the car!). Before my trip, I created a spreadsheet of my values and work priorities. I also added important personal items like spending time with my elderly grandmother and training for a triathlon. I was ruthless about not pursuing anything that was not on my list. I didn’t miss any of my stuff, and it cleared my mind to focus on completing work and personal projects that gave me energy. In the end, I accomplished far more with my small list than I had previously accomplished with an overflowing list.

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Author Profile

Erika Martin
Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Health Affairs, American Journal of Public Health, Public Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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